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Don't Fear the Bird:
Turkey Vultures Can Prevent Pandemics

Public health depends upon much maligned bird,

claims avian expert

by Ari Tulk



The wind blows harsh through the gold-turning leaves. The vulture’s rosebud head stands out against the sky like an American flag as she circles to land. The shining red skin, bone-white beak, and fathomless blue.

She lands on the road’s edge, and takes cautious steps toward the carcass. It looks soft, fresh, and inviting, but she must be careful if she is to safely cleanse this area of the diseases that the carcass threatens.
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Most people don’t know this side of the turkey vulture. Many people do not respect vultures due to their reputation of foul dirtiness, association with superstitious fear, and common appearance in images of death, decay, and chaos.

Jonathan Oglesbee, a resident of a southern coastal area of Delaware, a place with a high population of turkey vultures, says that when he first came across the birds on his arrival to his location, "they kind of reminded me of Halloween and spooky things…they looked a bit gruesome."


At first, he was not greatly bothered by the birds' presence, despite feeling unnerved by the great numbers of them "swarming the skies"; their comings and goings made sense to him, as he "attributed it to the...large construction dumpsters" which were regularly visited by the vultures.

When the vultures began to disrupt him and his neighbors, however, he grew interested.


"Some of my neighbors, their houses are higher than mine, and the vultures were eating part of their roof, especially around the plumbing vent pipes, causing their roofs to leak, and…quite a lot of damage,'' he says.


Due to his increasing annoyance at the birds' disturbance of the area, he researched how he could get rid of them and found that "you can annoy them but you can’t kill them"; turkey vultures are protected in many states in America, including Delaware.

So why are these birds protected by law despite their occasionally destructive behavior?
According to avian experts, the misunderstood turkey vulture has many redeeming features. Turkey vultures have many beneficial effects on the ecosystem and the overall preservation of natural landscapes.
Katie Fallon, an expert in turkey vultures as well as many other birds and a founder of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia (ACCA), believes that these widely discredited birds could be the key to disease prevention.
"Vultures really have an impact on public health when it comes to disease," Fallon states.

The turkey vulture, whose Latin name, Cathartes aura, means "cleansing breeze," is as their name suggests. Turkey vultures clear away the bodies of dead animals and neutralize the diseases potentially contained within them. As the human population increases and cities expand, so does the mess humans create, and as the mess increases, so must the population of the cleanup crew in order to maintain balance.

The conservation status of turkey vultures is of least concern, and this makes it easy to forget the importance of maintaining their population health. Although humans have played a relatively large part in the scavenger’s growth, they have granted them new challenges and benefits. Evidence suggests that fewer vultures could impact the likelihood of human diseases.

Fallon has found in her extensive research of the birds that they can destroy diseases before they have the chance to spread to wider animal communities. With an exceedingly acidic stomach and an extensive quantity and variety of bacteria in their digestive systems, they "can really fry whatever goes through." Thus, any diseases, bad and infectious bacteria, pathogens, or germs can be neutralized by their powerful digestive systems. "After it goes through their digestive systems, there isn’t any trace of the disease left," Katie Fallon says.

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Due to their exceptionally shrewd sense of smell, turkey vultures are often the first to carcasses—even before other vultures like black vultures, who often follow the turkey vultures to food.

"Turkey vultures and other vultures around the world eat carcasses fast," Fallon says, before mammalian scavengers can get to them, therefore "reducing the number and concentration of mammals around a carcass" and hindering the spread of disease.

In order to preserve humans’ health, carcasses must be cleanly dealt with before mammalian scavengers such as rats and mice get to them. Especially in cities, where such rodents will eat nearly anything, a stable population of disease-cleansing rather than disease-spreading scavengers is crucial.

After partaking of a large carrion repast, the rats and mice will spread whatever germs and diseases contained within the decaying flesh to each other and to their residences, which are often in the homes of humans. If a rodent eats some of a human’s food or defecates on a surface used in food preparation within a human home, their diseases can easily be transferred to people. According to the CDC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "diseases can spread to people directly, through handling of rodents; contact with rodent feces, urine, or saliva (such as through breathing in air or eating food that is contaminated with rodent waste); or rodent bites."

The effects of a devastating decline in India’s vulture population are an example of how mammalian scavengers can threaten public health.

Between 1992 and 2007, 97 to 99.9 percent of the species of vultures in India died out due to human impacts, according to Mongabay: News and Inspiration From Nature's Frontline In India, a nonprofit environmental conservation news platform. Katie Fallon, who has traveled to India to study the vultures there, as seen in her essay, "The Hill of The Sacred Eagles", states: "There’s been an increase in human rabies cases which…corresponded to the crash of the vulture population." 

Fallon, who is specifically knowledgeable in the area, believes that "they can help stop zoonotic diseases." She further explains that "mammals can spread rabies through saliva, so if you have an animal carcass with a lot of mammalian scavengers grouping up around it, biting each other, [and] eating off the same carcass, if one of them has rabies it can spread to others, and then, of course, can get spread to humans." This is an example of how a loss of vultures can cause disease. 

In North America, the vulture species are threatened by human impacts as well. Although humans benefit them in many ways, they also impact them negatively. 

"Often when we talk about something like climate change, it’s very depressing," Fallon says, "but for the turkey vultures and black things are getting warmer that’s allowing them to expand their range."


Northern areas have formerly been off-limits for the usually tropical to subtropical turkey vulture. However, the heat islands created by our cities, the increase in warmth due to global warming, and the web of warm, carrion-producing highways over the continent allow vultures to be "pushing further and further north."

Fallon expands on her claim, explaining the benefits of roads: "Our highway systems…certainly produce a lot of roadkill, and we also try to keep our highways free of snow, they tend to be a bit warmer than the landscape around them. That warm air…rises off the highways, and that creates a column of air for the vultures to soar on." Thus, winter time, which would usually deprive vultures of thermals to soar upon, has new possibilities for survival.

"Of course, there’s a tradeoff with birds being run over and hit on the roads," Fallon acknowledges, and this new beneficial effect of expanding human society is not the only one with a price.

When hunters shoot an animal, they leave behind the parts that they don’t want to eat, and can’t use, and these assortments of excess meat are called "gut piles." These have been a very good source of food for the vultures, being fresh, tender and juicy, the way vultures like their carrion, but if the hunter has used ammunition containing lead, the gut piles become a lead poisoning hazard. 

"[If] an animal…has…been shot by lead ammunition…little bits of lead are left in the carcass, [and] then when the vulture eats the carcass…it can inadvertently swallow little pieces of lead, then become sick," Fallon explains. Lead poisoning in birds can cause severe weakness, paralysis, seizures, and many other fatal symptoms. Lead affects red blood cells and their ability to carry oxygen, often causing organ failure throughout the body, according to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

A lesser-known and surprising threat to turkey vultures is the impact of windmills.

Windmills can cause problems for turkey vultures, as they can for other raptors such as hawks and eagles. The best places to site wind farms are also the best places for raptors and other high-flying birds to travel. "If you site a wind farm in a windy area along a ridge", Fallon says, the windmills can become significant obstacles for migrating birds, for they march alongside many essential traveling routes for raptors. It is not uncommon for birds to be caught in the propellers, the buoyant wind currents leading them astray. 

In addition to these seemingly unavoidable and accidental struggles that turkey vultures face, there are more intentional dangers to turkey vultures caused by humans. As their population increases and vulture communities have been forced to live in closer proximity with human communities, persecution has also become a threat to the peaceful scavengers.  

Oglesbee admits that his first thought when turkey vultures became present in his life was "can I get a gun and shoot it? Can I get a slingshot?"

A lot of people have unfounded beliefs about them due to fear or misinformation, and a lot of this fear and misinformation come from the media.

"I was definitely predisposed by those media images," Jonathan Oglesbee admits, "to think of them in negative terms…Versus a bald eagle…I’d been enculturated as an American to think, ‘oh there’s a bald eagle…wow, what a majestic animal!’ versus a turkey vulture, which you’re kind of like ‘what’s that thing, ugh.’ "

What most people do not know is that experiences such as what Oglesbee had, causing his distaste for vultures, may be caused by the very humans who later complain of them. In 2001, in Radford, Virginia, a large and very old turkey vulture and black vulture roost was disturbed by the removal of some of the trees in the vultures’ roost. This resulted in the vultures having to move elsewhere, and residents of the city began complaining that the vultures were littering their property with feces and causing damage to their rooves.

This pattern can be seen all across the turkey vultures’ territory throughout the ever-expanding towns and cities of the United States, including Oglesbee’s area of Delaware. According to Oglesbee, it "was a wooded area, and when they developed this neighborhood, they bulldozed the trees…the vultures were probably displaced."

Oglesbee has learnt to accept that they won’t go away but has developed ways to live alongside them. "When I hear one pecking at my roof, I just throw a football up there," he says with a laugh, and, according to him, his neighbors have also found ways to adapt. "My neighbors purchased covers for their vent pipes to protect the rubber the vultures were eating, and that seemed to be a solution too," he says.

"There are ways that we as humans can adapt our roofs without just having to eliminate vultures," says Oglesbee.

Katie Fallon believes that protecting the vulture population is vital to the preservation of public health in America. To Fallon, this begins with awareness of their importance to the ecosystem.


"[We need to begin] noticing turkey vultures, realizing that they are turkey vultures, [and] understanding that they are a very beneficial species to humans and to the ecosystems as a whole, [because] all life depends on a healthy ecosystem," says Fallon. Most importantly, she believes that people’s misunderstanding of turkey vultures is behind most of the threats against them.

"Don’t fear the vultures; that’s my message."

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